Marcus Bussey

Reading the Future: A Review of The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies

Slaughter, Richard A., (ed) The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies (Melbourne; Futures Study Centre, 1996) Vol 1 pp 372; Vol 2 pp 419; Vol 3 pp 396. Aud $180.

To be in possession of a copy of the three volume set The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies is, despite Italo Calvino’s assertion that the invention of the printing press has severely curtailed the human ability to remember things, a passport into a vibrant and dynamic intellectual community. In this work we meet many of the people at the heart of this nascent discipline, hearing their voices as if in a conversation. Richard Slaughter, the series editor and chief architect, has brokered a truly marvellous gathering of luminaries from many points of the ideological compass. As I entered into the spirit of the work I felt its story unfold with a purpose and rightness that you would not expect of a text representing forty-nine thinkers. I was perhaps aided in my task by coming to it with few expectations. But still, a story it does tell of a discipline struggling to find itself in a world which values cohesion and definition over pluralism and dissonance.

In Slaughter’s hands we are given not a great novel but a story in the tradition of A Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. It is pluralist and rich with a range of voices all offering tales within the grander narrative of Futures Studies. This form allows for a multiplicity of identities to emerge from the text. On the surface the work is what it claims to be, a resource which brings together the variety of elements that are coming together under the banner of Futures Studies. Taken at this superficial level there is always room to mutter that it is incomplete, that this or that theme is under or over represented. In the past I’ve felt some discomfort due to the over representation of white, western, middle class men within the arena of academic discourse. Yet this work acknowledges both the deficiencies and the latent potentialities of Futures Studies today. This is refreshing after the somewhat hegemonic tone of earlier efforts at synthesis in which voices of dissent were rare.

Seen as a sampler The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies has much to recommend it. Not least of all is the fact that it is incomplete. Slaughter is already planning another three volumes! These will be looking at what futurists think, organisational practice and dissenting futures. Yet putting aside these three volumes we find a work that tells a coherent story of a discipline in search of its self, and we hear in the often divergent tales the struggle futurists are engaged in as they work towards self definition. A slight change of perspective from sample to chronicle provides yet more insight into this work. Viewed in this way The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies can be read as a chronicle of the emergence of an ethic based on responsible relationship. Many of the authors in the Knowledge Base acknowledge the deficiencies of Futures Studies but have faith in the integrity of its underlying value structure. Slaughter gives prominence to this ethical chorus by placing the bulk of the ethical discourse strategically in the third volume. It is no accident I feel that this volume is the richest representative of divergence, representing as it does the largest collection of non-western, non-male writers.

Reading the Knowledge Base as a chronicle is important because it helps us see Futures as a living history, what Yehezkel Dror calls ‘thinking-in-history’ and Sohail Inayatullah refers to a ‘maps of time’. We find in this history an emergent ethic which is vibrantly alive with conflicting poses and opportunities, and, thank heavens, still a great deal of open-endedness.

If we shift lenses again The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies can be read as an ambassador to the Other, offering to the dispossessed and silenced a share in the future. This can be a cynical reading, we in the west are giving back what we stole and what we know will soon be seized from us by the weight of historical necessity, but I think it has the potential for, and indeed the intention of, transcending such a peevish interpretation. I say this even though I agree with Ashis Nandy’s argument that the critique of a western hegemony takes place in the language of western academia. So, once again we find the central culture replicating itself, like a mutant gene, in the minds of those seeking to free themselves from it. Yet this is one of the contradictions that helps to enliven Futures Studies. The bulk of the discipline does have its origin in a western humanist discourse which does need to move, and is moving, towards a Neo-Humanist position which flattens ‘centre-periphery distinctions’. I believe that it is from this tension that new culture will emerge. And this culture will be representative of both the old centre and the new.

Furthermore, as Futures Studies moves out from the centre it is becoming and will become, as Tony Stevenson suggests in one of his scenarios for the future of the World Futures Study Federation, more and more representative of non-centre voices. Seen in this light the ambassadorial role of futures is critical to bridging the gap between privilege and poverty, hope and despair. It is a hand extended to the Other in good faith; albeit there is considerable naivety in the gesture because as Zia Sardar forcefully reminds us, whether we like it or not, the future is non-western.

It is in yet another frame that the richest reading of The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies can occur. From this perspective Slaughter is to be found working at his most ambitious for he is trying to orchestrate synthesis at the meta level, where the whole becomes more than the some of its parts. In this reading Futures Studies is no longer a simple discipline but an attempt at cultural engineering, where the building blocks of self are recognised to be spiritual and always have the strongest voice. They represent the centre, the dominant culture and criticise it though they might they are fundamentally bound to play by its rules. The emphasis, for example, on visioning and imagining positive futures comes out of this space. It is essentially quietistic. Being rooted in a Platonic western spirituality that, like all of Platonic thought, is submissive to authority and supportive of the status quo. It’s not that I don’t feel there is a place for visioning sessions in futures work, it is just that I don’t see a nice visioning session turning around an economic rationalist who is set upon extending the productivity of his or her company or department. Fortunately I feel The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies transcends this shallow reading. It is in its other identities that the importance and vitality of the work rests.

If we take the work as a well-thought-out sampler seeking to plot and chart the course of an idea we will be better rewarded. Slaughter provides a broad conceptual framework that orders and organises the contributions. In volume one we enter the story via a number of tales that outline the historical emergence and lineage of Futures Studies. We then proceed to sections describing futures concepts, futures literature and futures epistemologies and methods. Volume two looks at areas that reflect the application of futures ideas and concepts. This section tells us something about futures in action. Volume three looks ahead at futures tomorrow and conceptual rather than material, and the power to achieve a present worthy of future generations lies in how we construct meaning and action today. It is at this meta level, what Tony Judge calls the noetic space, that the real action is occurring. The ferment of ideas contained in The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies spans the disciplines allowing equal validity to all the varied faces of Futures Studies. Thus the tools of forecasting, cultural analysis, critical reflection and transcendence operate to generate a meta story consistent with Slaughter’s own transpersonal vision for the future. This vision is founded on his concept of an inter-generational ethic that promotes a commitment to a sustainable society with humans as stewards, a recognition that the ‘future is deeply implicated in the present’, an embracing of science as a reflection of an ‘interconnected reality’ in which the sacred is as vital as the visceral perception of existence.

Slaughter has gone a long way in The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies towards demonstrating that ‘hard-core’ Futures Studies can be anchored in high level scholarship while at the same time promoting creative and visionary interaction with both long and short term futures. Furthermore, by allowing in spiritual and heart oriented discourse we are given the space within which future developments are not foreclosed but expanded. Thus the potential for renewal is ever present. The ‘Other’ rather than being excluded becomes an integral part of the story, thus anchoring the whole enterprise in a value structure that transcends our human limitations.